22 October 2006

What, me sell?

When I was employed by the consultancy practice of a Big 5 accountancy firm, it was an education. The accountants were intelligent, largely urbane and many were reluctant to do any business development at all.

Sales was seen as unprofessional and there was an enormous range of deflectionary activities which were engaged in, to avoid actually speaking to a real person employed by a target company. I'm exaggerating obviously to make a point, and many of the accountancy partners were very gifted natural salespeople who could identify a buying signal without difficulty. The bulk of the more junior accountants in an accountancy firm will never make partner, and one of the things holding them back is their inability to sell.

This collective unwillingness to become involved in the sales process meant that there were frequent requests for sales training as if they somehow believed that attending a training session could take away the fear associated with picking up a telephone or speaking to a prospect. On balance, I'm still a little surprised that anyone in an accountancy firm sells at all, since so many of the recruitment processes seem to identify and employ people who find the whole sales activity an anathema.

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Anonymous Charles H. Green said...

John, that's my experience as well--having worked in professional services for 20 years and consulted to them for another ten.

As you put it, "Sales was seen as unprofessional," and you correctly note that accountants engage in a plethora of activities that boil down to avoidance, hoping to find some "tip" that will let them square their self-perceived sense of professionalism with their sense that "selling" is antithetical to that view of their mission.

What lurks behind that avoidance is self-centered fear: a combination of fear of rejection, and fear of being misunderstood and misperceived as being self-centered (and yes, there's a paradox at work there).

The way out lies in correcting two misunderstandings that many professionals labor under: a misconception about the nature of professionalism, and of the role of sales.

The conventional wisdom of client service is that it's a noble sacrifice; what we give to clients, we must take from ourselves. And the conventional wisdom of sales is that it's a forcible con job foisted upon our clients, against their will and against their self-interest.

Seen that way, no wonder accountants run for the doors! But they misconceive it.

Properly conceived, client service is mutually beneficial. It enables long-term relationships, sharing of goals, maximizing of the combination of interests rather than least-common-denominators of two separate sets of interests. There is no such thing as win-lose or lose-win in the long run; good client service is good provider profitability, and great market success for both.

Properly conceived, sales is the ability to help a client envision an alternative reality, wherein things can be better than the client had been able to perceive on their own. From that vantage point, professionalism requires that ability. Anything short of that is just short-term, opportunistic, zero-sum performance against agreed upon contracts; it lacks any dynamism or holistic view of what is possible in a true relationship.

Sales and professionalism are not diametrically opposed; properly conceived, they are integrally related. And if they can be seen that way, then accountants need not fear business development, but actually seek it out. It is simply a prospective way of helping clients.

The only difference between sales and delivery is that one is helping clients under contract, the other is helping clients not yet under contract. Seen that way, the only difference lies in asking to get paid for work well done; which after all is not only fair, but is required in order for good work to continue to be done.

2:52 pm  
Blogger John Diffenthal said...


Thanks for your post. My question is how it came about.

Your post would have been recognised by the founders of the major accountancy firms. I realise that a certain amount of growth in the accounting profession arose from a benign legislative environment but that obviously isn't the entire explanation. Some of those founders had to be very effective salespeople.

How did those firms change so much that they began to recruit staff who felt alienated by the sales process?

I have absolutely no explanation.

8:47 pm  
Anonymous Charles H. Green said...


Great question: how did we evolve away from an integrated delivery/sales conception of professionalism to one where "sales" is a 4-letter word. I think you're right, the founders "got it," and that's missing today.

Let me offer one (incomplete) piece of an answer.

Business in general--but particularly business schools--have become enamored in the past 4 decades with the academicization of business. Business schools have hired people who have not practiced business. They have PhDs in psychology, or have done deep research in econometrics, market research, or linear programming. Academic publications in marketing these days resemble PhD theses in computer technology from a few decades ago.

We have come to believe in a few myths, such as:
-if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. Ridiculous on the face of it, but we rarely look at the face of it. You can manage through fear, love, intimidation, example, or praise--none of which require measurement.
-if you can't explain it, it's worthless. Also silly, as anyone who has seen experience, gut feel and intuiton at work can attest.
-if you can't study it, it isn't worth studying. Salespeople don't buy books by Harvard professors, they buy sales books. Harvard doesn't teach "selling." But there sure are a lot of sales books sold out there.
-people think rationally. No they don't. As Jeffrey Gitomer puts it, people buy with their hearts, then rationalize it with their brains.

In short, I think one reason accountants today have dissociated business development and business delivery is that everyone around them thinks of "selling" as not only low-class and unethical, but un-studyable, not a fit subject for academic research, something you "know" how to do already, and--worst of all--beneath them, since there is little academic discipline or respect.

This is one of the unfortunate results of looking at the world through excessively quantitative, linear, rational eyes. The world does not cooperate with us, being at root messier than we like to think.

That's one thought anyway.

6:53 pm  
Blogger John Diffenthal said...

"Up to a point, Lord Copper."

Your point about quantitative linear approaches strikes home, but the academicisation of business is effectively an environmental issue - not restricted to accountants - why is sales not a dirty word to the same extent in other businesses?

7:23 pm  

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